WASHINGTON — The number of illegal immigrants in the USA fell for the first time in at least four years, as the nation’s tough economy discourages people from sneaking into the USA, the Homeland Security Department said Monday.
The decline still left the country with 11.6 million illegal residents in January 2008, down from a record 11.8 million a year earlier, according to a Homeland Security report. There were about 4 million illegal residents in 1990, according to federal agencies and researchers.
Homeland Security spokesman Mike Keegan said rising unemployment led to fewer people trying to sneak across the border. Keegan also said the department is doing a better job stopping people from entering the country illegally and apprehending illegal residents in the USA.
The Center for Immigration Studies said the latest figures show that tough enforcement is working. “We should keep it up because nothing has been solved when there are still 11 million illegal aliens,” said the center’s executive director, Mark Krikorian. The group supports enforcing immigration laws to reduce the number of illegal residents.
The department estimates the number of illegal residents by subtracting the number of foreign-born people who are in the USA legally from the Census estimate of the total foreign-born population.
Homeland Security figures go back to 2000, when there were 8.5 million illegal immigrants. It did not keep figures for the years 2001 through 2004; in 2005, the number rose to 10.5 million. The numbers increased in 2006 and 2007 before declining last year, the report says.
Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, said economic factors have historically caused surges and drops in illegal immigration. “Enforcement plays some role,” Passel said, but added that the number of illegal immigrants roughly doubled in the 1990s “in the fact of steadily ramped up enforcement over that period.”
Growth in illegal immigration since 2000 has been driven largely by Mexicans, who now account for 61 percent of illegal residents, the Homeland Security report says.
Nevada’s 280,000 illegal immigrants account for 11 percent of its population, the highest proportion of any state, according to Census figures and the report. In Arizona, 9 percent of residents are illegal migrants.